The Fog of War and a Ray of Light

As regular readers will have noticed, I haven’t blogged in awhile.  This is in part because I’m on the road for most of six weeks, but also because the news about OOXML continues to be both more predictable as well as more intense.  At some point, the single events of the day become less individually meaningful, because they are simply part of the same fractal pattern that has replicated itself over and over since September of 2005, when Massachusetts adopted ODF, putting document standards on many powerful companies’ strategic maps.  Since then, that pattern has spread dramatically, engulfing more companies, affecting more National Bodies in more countries, and invoking more campaigning on both sides.  Only rarely is something now written or said that cuts through this fog of war.  A few days ago in South Africa, someone did just that, and that’s what I’ve written about today.

A voice of reason is particularly welcome at this juncture, as those fractal patterns are replicating at an increasingly feverish pace as the deadline for changing votes on OOXML rapidly approaches.  For example:  in the US, a first vote held last week in INCITS ran heavily towards leaving last summer’s vote to approve OOXML in place.  A detailed schedule was laid out (as it had been last summer) to allow for other ballots to be held to determine whether, in compliance with standing rules, a greater consensus could be achieved around some other result (e.g., to abstain or to disapprove).  But after one conference call this week, it was agreed that there was no point to taking any further votes, as no one was likely to budge from their initial position, regardless of discussion or attempts at compromise.

And this:  from Romania, I received an email yesterday describing a new stacking situation.  And then there is the continuing clash over what did and did not happen, and what was and was not achieved at the Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva last month.  For its part, Microsoft’s Jason Matusow says that OOXML is much better than it was when initially submitted, and therefore calls the BRM an “unqualified success,” while IBM’s Rob Weir points out how many defects still remain, and Sun’s Tim Bray concluded that the BRM, while well intentioned, was “complete, utter, unadulterated bullshit” (in a similarly diplomatic aside, he pronounced that Ecma, the standards group that midwifed the delivery of OOXML to ISO/IEC JTC 1, was a “toxic leech”) 

For my part, I focused on the fact that only a small number of the c. 800 substantive, non-editorial comments had actually been discussed and, as needed, amended before being approved.  I judged the BRM a failure on that basis.  Convenor Alex Brown and I disagreed on this conclusion in an ongoing exchange of comments that you can find at that same entry.

Meanwhile, an analyst named Dennis Byron launched a series of startling articles on OOXML.  In one, he incredibly railed against Microsoft for “wasting stockholder value” on standards.  In another, he launched wild allegations against IBM that are totally at odds with all facts of which I have personal knowledge. [Update:  see the exchange of comments between Dennis and me below]

It’s all very depressing, as well as predictable.  And it won’t be over until it’s over on March 29.  Except, of course, it won’t be over then, either.  The battle at hand then will simply be the next skirmish, as the forces temporarily withdraw from the field while the votes are counted.

By now, of course, everyone is completely dug in, earplugs firmly in place, and no one is really listening to anyone with a viewpoint other than their own – they’re either tuned into Fox News or NPR, and never the channel shall be switched.  It seems almost gratuitous, therefore, to write anything at all about OOXML, because the practical effect will almost certainly be nil.  Just before the BRM, I tried one last time to explain why I think the OOXML vote matters so much.  In that piece, I described what I called “Civil ICT Rights,” and explained why “Civil ICT Standards” were essential to secure those rights.  That piece touched a few people, but was of course just another drop in the bucket.  

Still, the number of drops that continue to fall, the disparate buckets in which they are landing, and the variety of metaphors and meanings used by those who “get” the importance of unencumbered (either by patents or by undue vendor influence) standards and free and open source software (FOSS) continue to add up.  Each of these efforts succeeds in making real to a few more people why Civil ICT Rights matter, and why Civil ICT Standards must therefore not only be recognized, but differentiated and protected from the inadequate imitators that can undercut their utility.

Yesterday, someone sent me a link to one of the most eloquent and beautiful explanations of why Civil ICT Standards and FOSS matter.  That explanation was provided by South African Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi in her opening remarks at the Idlelo African Conference on FOSS and Digital Commons.  You can find the full text here, as well as a link to a video of the speech itself.  I’d encourage you to read or view the full speech (it’s not very long), but I will provide some excerpts below so that you can grasp the essence of what the Minister was trying to convey:

…This past year has been marked by a raising in the tension between the traditional incumbent monopoly software players and the rising champions of the Free Software movement in Africa. The flashpoints of conflict have been particularly marked around the development and adoption of open standards and growing concerns about software patents….

It is unfortunate that the leading vendor of office software, which enjoys considerable dominance in the market, chose not to participate and support ODF in its products, but rather to develop its own competing document standard which is now also awaiting judgement in the ISO process. If it is successful, it is difficult to see how consumers will benefit from these two overlapping ISO standards. I would like to appeal to vendors to listen to the demands of consumers as well as Free Software developers. Please work together to produce interoperable document standards. The proliferation of multiple standards in this space is confusing and costly….

An issue which poses a significant threat to the growth of an African software development sector (both Free Software and proprietary) is the recent pressure by certain multinational companies to file software patents in our national and regional patent offices. Whereas open standards and Free Software are intended to be inclusive and encourage fair competition, patents are exclusive and anti-competitive in their nature. Whereas there are some industries in which the temporary monopoly granted by a patent may be justified on the grounds of encouraging innovation, there is no reason to believe that society benefits from such monopolies being granted for computer program “inventions”. The continued growth in the quantity and quality of Free Software illustrates that such protection is not required to drive innovation in software. Indeed all of the current so-called developed countries built up their considerable software industries in the absence of patent protection for software. For those same countries to insist on patent protection for software now is simply to place protectionist barriers in front of new comers. As the economist, Ha-Joon Chang, observed: having reached the top of the pile themselves they now wish to kick away the ladder.

African software developers have enough barriers to entry as it is, without the introduction of artificial restrictions on what programs they are and aren’t allowed to write. When Steven Biko wrote “I write what I like” he was not referring to computer programs but it would certainly be an apt motto for today’s generation of African Free Software developers. It will become increasingly important for FOSSFA to continue to lobby and mobilize to keep this intellectual space open.

One cannot be in Dakar without being painfully aware of the tragic history of the slave trade. For three hundred years, the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) on Gorée Island, was a hub in the system of forceful transportation of Africans as slaves to the plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of America. Over the same period people were being brought as slaves from the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere to South Africa. The institution of slavery played such a fundamental role in the early development of our current global economy, that by the end of the 18th century, the slave trade was a dominant factor in the globalised system of trade of the day.

As we find ourselves today in this new era of the globalised Knowledge Economy there are lessons we can and must draw from that earlier era. That a crime against humanity of such monstrous proportions was justified by the need to uphold the property rights of slave owners and traders should certainly make us more than a little cautious about what should and should not be considered suitable for protection as property….

Not long ago, I dedicated an issue of Standards Today to the topic of Globalization, Standards and Intellectual Property Rights.  The Feature article was titled Government Policy and “Standards-Based Neocolonialism.”  Needless to say, I couldn’t agree with the Minister’s position more.  She’s dead on target – and it matters.

There are many people in the middle who are neither pro-ODF nor Pro OOXML, in part because it seems to them that each is “just another standard.” From this perspective, it seems reasonable to conclude that if OOXML is better now than it was six months ago and is something like what Office 2007 is based upon, then, well, we should just say “yes” instead of “no.”  My hope is that over time, if not by March 29, the majority of those that have the right to vote on standards will come to understand what Ms. Fraser-Moleketi has so eloquently explained.  If they do, then Civil ICT Rights can be secured, and Civil ICT Standards will earn the recognition and protection that they deserve, and upon which I believe so much depends.

If you hope so, too, then perhaps you might want to contact your National Body, and suggest that they read and carefully consider what Ms. Fraser-Moleketi has to say.


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Comments (11)

  1. Dear Sir

    I recently posted a quick comment on my blog about the Boston Globe story on the IBM/Cognos deal with the State of Mass.  I notice on your website that you believe it to be inaccurate, that you posted a comment to that effect on Seeking Alpha (SA), and that your comment was apparently moderated off the SA site or did not “go through.”

    As to process, I would assume there was some kind of technical glitch on the SA site because they only moderate comments off their site for one reason that I know of and you do not appear to be the sort of blogger. Just so you aware of the process, I post at my site (in this case, on the day that the article ran in the Globe). It is syndicated to other sites including SA and could have appeared on SA on a different day than the Globe article ran.  I have no control over what appears on SA (if it was moderated off).  I do not even have control over whether my own posts appear. I would be glad to post your comment on my site where the blog post originally appeared. I will also contact SA and ask them to repost your comment.

    As to substance, you say my post is “wildly inaccurate” but do not say in what way. It’s only three paragraphs long so it is hard to see how it could be wildly inaccurate, especially since one of the paragraphs is a direct quote from the Globe. Admittedly the “bribes a bunch of Swedish kids” opening remark is exaggeration for effect, much like your statement above " “since September of 2005, when Massachusetts adopted ODF…”. I assume the Scandinavian Windows solutions providers that stacked the OOXML vote are twenty-somethings (because most Windows solutions providers are) and twenty-somethings are kids to me. It is not likely that that Microsoft stacked the vote with Ericsson employees.

    But the rest of the short post is my opinion (which of course is my opinion) and two statements of fact backed by primary research. I do not consider secondary research by reporters to be a better source than the primary documents but I would be happy to reference your sources if you send them to me. My primary sources in this case for the two facts in my post are the files of the 2002/2003 Massachusetts IT Commission (the taskforce “run by IBM Global Services” and “jury rigged by having Sun appointed to it”) and the 2006 Post Audit Committee report entitled “Open Standards/Closed Government” (the pols that were “appalled” by the Sun/IBM/ITD process and that quickly forced a change in the Massachusetts ITD policy on four document formats–not just ODF–that was proposed in ETRM 3.5).

    Dennis Byron

  2. Dennis,

    First, thanks very much for your explanation on the comment posting mechanics, as well as for your very polite response overall – that’s all too rare in the blogging world, and I appreciate it.

    Having reread your post after reading your comment above, I see that the problem is that on a fair reading, you are (perhaps accidentally) conflating two events from two different periods of time in a way that, to me, reads as if they are directly connected.  As I read it, it sounds as if you are saying that IBM stacked a committee that was directly involved with ODF, and that this influenced the outcome on ODF.  Neither of these statements would be true, based upon what I have seen (including a full response from the Information and Technology Division under the Massachusetts equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request for all ODF-related materials from 2004 through 2007, and many interviews with many of those most concerned, including in the Auditors office).  Moreover, one thing that angered Senator Pacheco and some others was that in their view the ITD had not involved the technology task force at all.

    I have not personally looked into any events in 2002-3, and therefore have no basis to comment on re quibble with any statements relating to the Globe article.  
    That said, I do not recall anyone mentioning those events in 2005 (that includes people I talked to at Microsoft, people in the ITD, and other interested parties).  I have not gone back to reread it since it was issued, but I do not recall that its conclusions and recommendations were based upon any such connection.  In any event, however, that report  was not only advisory in nature, but was delivered a year after the legislative actions (and inaction) in question.

    So to summarize, my concerns would be addressed if your article stated that there was an event in 2002-03, and another event in 2005-07, each of which involved interaction between powerful vendors and Massachusetts government, but not suggesting that IBM engineered the ITD’s decision to adopt ODF, which I do not believe is supportable by the facts.

    Again, thanks for your comment.


    • Dear sir, It is a pleasure to discuss this issue professionally because it underlies a lot of other misleading statements that permeate the Internet to the detriment of the open source software movement (see recent article about "Hot heads" at,130061733,339287376,00.htm).

      You are right that I am connecting the dots between the 2002-2003 IT Commission findings and the 2005-2007 ODF controversey.  No, my connection of the two is not accidental but I respect your opposite opinion. It appears you have spent more time looking at the 2005-2007 events and I have spent more time looking at the 2002-2003 events. I beleive the 2002-2003 commission led to the ETRM process which led to the attempt to block Microsoft’s standard from being used in the one department within the executive branch for which Peter Quinn worked. I also believe the original 2003 commission findings (of which "open" anything was only a small part) also led to the Senate Post Audit committee’s investigation that seems to have begun in 2003, the Senators’ very quick 2005 reaction to Quinn’s proposal for how his one department would store documents, and eventually to the 2006 report. I contend that any clear reading of the timeline and the substance of all these activities and documents says they are all of one cloth.

      To be clear, I don’t think there even was a specific "ODF committee" (that was the problem, no?) but you would know for sure. Also I don’t think IBM stacked the deck on the 2002 commission and I hope that I didn’t imply that. I think (but can only conclude this through inference) that Quinn did the stacking by putting Sun  on such an important commission without Microsoft’s presence (or at least by not objecting to someone else putting Sun there, which he should have done on fairness grounds).  I have read your interview with Eric Kriss; he seems to take credit for some things that happened between 2003 and 2005 but this whole process started when Romney was still running for Governor.

      It doesn’t surprise me that Microsoft was not aware of any of this.  It appeared to be out to lunch on the events of 2002-2003 until it later hired a good lobbyist.

      Dennis Byron

  3. just a few typo corrections:

    s/detailed schedule had was laid out /detailed schedule was laid out /
    s/on one/no one/

    I have greatly appreciated your coverage over the last year.

    • Thanks for both the typo catch as well as the kind words.

        –  Andy

  4. Someone sent me an email questioning whether I endorsed the Minister’s references to intellectual property rights in the context of slavery, as well as whether I seriously thought that proprietary software was invalid.  I thought it might be useful to share my response with a wider audience.  Here’s how I replied:

    Thanks for getting in touch.  Here’s how I see it, starting with the second, and I think easier, one first:

    I don’t really think that the minister was placing slavery and proprietary software on the same plane.  Instead, she simply says that the location  "should stop and make us think" about how we justify property rights.  So the quick answer is, no, I don’t put them on the same plane, and didn’t read the minister to imply that either.

    The other point requires a bit more detailed answer.  The quick part is this:  I totally agree that there is a place for proprietary software, and don’t in any way think that the concept of proprietary software is unacceptable on any level.  I do see some nuances below this, though, as follows:

    –  This could be a very long discussion, so I’ll  simply summarize my view on software patents.  I’ve represented emerging and established software companies for almost 30 years now.  For almost half of that, SW patents were unavailable.  For another good chunk of time, few companies got them at all.  I think that it would be difficult to make out an empirical case that innovation was greater, or less great, throughout that period based upon the availability of patent protection.  At the same time, the patent system has become widely recognized as not working particularly well, Europe still limits patent availability, and, perhaps most significantly, copyright and trade secret law gives strong protection.  So my bottom line is that while I think that proprietary software is fine, I think that patents cause more harm than good.

    –  I think that the view from emerging nations is very important to understand, and for the industry to deal with.  Existing patents put them at a huge disadvantage, and will do so for quite some time until that date, if ever, when they reach equality with established multinationals.  We’re already seeing the consequences of this in China, where they are simply creating their own, patent protected, expensive standards.  You can read more about what I’ve called "Standards Based Neo-colonialism" in the article I linked to.

    The other article I link to discusses what I call "Civil ICT Standards," which I define as a very narrow subset of standards.  You could think of them as being entitled to the same type of legal consideration that public utilities regulations are created to address – standards that relate to interfaces that have become as important to modern life as water, electricity or heat.

    I hope that’s helpful in clarifying where I’m coming from.

    Perhaps that will be useful to other readers as well.

      –  Andy

    • It’s more a practical thing, "How do you teach the next generation".
      If you lock up value with patents, then you get to the proposition that "All the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverley Hills in somebody else’s name"; there isn’t much point in schools and universities teaching kids to develop and service software because the ‘oldies’ will take all the value from their labours.

      In UK schools at the moment, there is a ‘Microsoft Monopoly’ which means a school pays $30 per year per PC for the privilege of running Windows and Office, even if the PC does not in fact run Microsoft software (or even if it;s an Apple which cannot).

      So Windows and Office is what the kids learn, to the exclusion of all else.

      Is that good for anyone ?

    • Hey Andy,

      I wanted to comment on your mention of the ethical value of open source software.  Although the open source definition as maintained bij OSI ( is concerned with the ethical issues at hand, a great many people including notables like Torvalds refer to ‘open source’ as a development model yielding technically superior software, (mostly) disregarding ethical values.  Therefore it is more appropriate to use the term ‘free software’ (as defined by the Free Software Foundation: which refers to practically the same collection of software but emphasizes its ethical value.  I’m sure the FSF folks would be very happy with that.

      Nonetheless, I very much enjoy reading your blog.  I really appreciate the effort you put into it and your willingness to correct mistakes.

      — Steven

      • Steven,

        That’s a fair point, and I’ll go back and make the appropriate changes here.  I try and remain aware of when OSS is the right term (when I’m only talking about the development model), FOSS (when I’m talking about clearly GPL situations, and where that’s why the developers chose the GPL) and FLOSS when I’m speaking to a European audience.  That said, I’m not as careful as I should be, and this is an example of that.

        Thanks for reminding me that I need to be more aware.

          –  Andy

    • Hi Andy

      Thanks for the ever interesting blog.  I did meet you briefly in Geneva somewhere between the brm and the not-the-brm but we didn’t get time to talk.

      I think the really interesting aspect of the Minister’s reference to the slave trade is as much an economic as a moral one.  Many of us in Africa, and no doubt elsewhere, are being bombarded daily with exhortations to "catch up" with and join the so-called knowledge economy.  Like its some kind of external state which we need to enter, or perhaps even evolve into.  Of course there is much nonsense in all this – we are as much a part of the globalised knowledge economy as anyone else.  We’re just largely at the butt end of it.  And not for the first time.

      The Minister makes the point that much of the buzz of the globalised economy just over 200 years ago revolved around the slave trade.  And we were pretty much part of that as well.  And its a well documented fact that the reason why slavery was allowed to go on for as long as it did in places like the US was due to the sacredness of what some chose to assume as (and others chose to recognise as) their property rights.  It seems it was a pretty core contradiction at that time  – a society built on the ideals of liberty and the Rights of Man, recognizing property as one of those liberties, got itself into a pretty bad place.   And as long as people were viewed as proper subject matter for property rights there is no easy way out of this contradiction.

      There is absolutely no way that software patents share anything like the same moral dimension as slavery.  But it certainly is an instructive and powerful analogy for recognizing the tension between human freedom and inappropriate appropriation in the context of global trade.


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